AFF Suzuki Cup Final: Pressure on Thailand to win

With all the pressure on Thailand to win the AFF Suzuki Cup, Indonesia can play with freedom as they look to grab a first-leg lead to take to Bangkok.

At half-time of the opening game of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, Indonesia were 2-0 down to Thailand and the plot seemed to be following the expected pattern. The defending champions were heading for a comfortable win while Indonesia were looking as disorganised at the back as many predicted.

Almost a month on from that wet afternoon in Manila, we are approaching the first half of the final to take place in the Javanese city of Bogor on Wednesday. At half-time in this tie, the 90 minutes in Indonesia will be over with 90 more to come in Bangkok three days later.

And that is pretty much all can be said with any confidence ahead of the big clash as Indonesia and Thailand meet once again, this time with the trophy at stake.

Indonesia have been confounding expectations ever since that first half in Manila. Even in that period, they caused Thailand a few problems but early in the second half, the Garudas scored two goals in quick succession to rock the four-time champs on their heels.

Can they cause more problems for Thailand?

Thailand ran out 4-2 winners but it was a scoreline that flattered a little and it showed that, going forward at least, Indonesia were capable of hurting a team that had gone toe-to-toe with Asian champions Australia just four days earlier.

And the reds have improved as the tournament has progressed, becoming cohesive, confident and organised. The lack of expectations surrounding the team has helped. This is partly a result of the year-long FIFA ban that ended only in May. It should not be forgotten that the game against the War Elephants was Indonesia’s first competitive clash in two years.

If Thailand underestimate the home team at Bogor tonight, they will be in big trouble. Fans have been lining up for days to get tickets to the stadium to the south of Jakarta with the big arena Gelora Bung Karno in the capital undergoing renovations. The atmosphere will be intense.

Nobody in Indonesia expected this game to take place at all and there is a lack of pressure on the team. Talking to FOX Sports Asia, Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang admitted that it was different for his side. “In the Suzuki Cup, we have to win. We are not interested in second place,” said the man known as ‘Zico’. “Only winning is important for us. We will not be satisfied with anything else.”

This is where Indonesia’s hope lies. The fear of losing is absent – or it should be at least. The Merah Putih have already succeeded and can’t fail, regardless of what happens on Wednesday or Saturday. They have ended a year that started with little to smile about on a massive high.

Indonesia have played with freedom, pace and imagination – the second leg of the semifinal in Vietnam the one exception – all through the tournament. They have improved defensively.

The backline, that included youngsters Manahati Lestusen, Abdul Lestaluhu, Yanto Basna and Hansama – none over 23 – has been bolstered by the experienced Fachrudin Aryanto. The goalkeeper Kurnia Meiga started a little uncertainly but has grown in authority and with the pace in attack of Andik Vermansyah, Rizky Pora and Boaz Solasso and the hugely impressive Stefano Lilipaly pulling the strings just behind, there are reasons to be optimistic and, perhaps, even a little confident.

For coach Alfred Riedl, the question is how to approach the game. With the fans and country behind the team, the Austrian will surely opt for aggression. He knows it is crucial to take something to defend in Bangkok.

As exciting as Thailand have been going forward, they have yet to be really tested. No team has scored against Kawin Thamsatchanan since Indonesia but there have been chances. Thailand will always give you that.

Can he be beaten?

Still, they have every reason to be confident as the best team in this tournament. Naturally attacking and aggressive, it remains to be seen if coach Zico is a little cautious early on in Bogor, allowing the hosts to make the running and hit on the counter. Or will he go for an early away goal to silence the crowd, dent the confidence and take control?

How the impressive Thai wing-backs of Tristan Do on the right and Theerathon Bunmathan on the left handle the pace of Andik and Rizky is crucial. At the same time, they have to get forward to support the attack if the War Elephants are to play their usual game. Whoever wins this battle can take the trophy.

There is pressure on Thailand and if Indonesia can add to that at home, then Bangkok could be an intimidating place for both teams on Saturday. Anything less than victory is failure for the Thais. Indonesia –happy just to be here — have to take advantage of that. If so, a first win at the fifth final attempt is possible.

John Duerden